With violence on the rise in public schools, is school choice more important than ever?

Violence in public schools is on the rise. 

And while there may be no clear answers on how to stop the historic increase in public school violence, a recent Harvard study suggests that students are safer in private schools than government institutions.

The Harvard study finds that “private schools have a statistically significant advantage for each of the 13 discipline problems examined.” That leads the researchers to conclude, ”the safety benefits of private schooling are large,” and that “private school vouchers could be tickets to safer schools.”

Evidence of a post-pandemic uptick in school violence is, well, quite evident: An internet search of the words “school violence” quickly returns dozens of stories from all over the country of school districts reporting an unprecedented spike in violence. 

According to a database maintained by the Washington Post, school shootings were at a more than 20-year high in 2021, and that’s with students learning remotely for at least the first two months of the year. 

The database recorded 34 school shootings in 2021. An additional 23 school shootings have been recorded so far this year, putting 2022 on pace to shatter 2021’s grim record. 

School violence in the greater Kansas City metropolitan area has parents and students concerned and afraid for their safety – after a shooting that wounded a student and two staff members, and a separate stabbing that killed a 14-year-old student, both in the past two months alone. 

Incidents like these, and many more all over the country, have left communities everywhere in search of answers. Everything from arming teachers, hiring more counselors and placing more officers on school campuses has been considered. 

At a recent school board meeting, Superintendent Dr. Mark Bedell of Kansas City Public schools issued a call for action.  

“I can’t do this as a superintendent by myself, and neither can this board or this administration or the faculty and staff,” Bedell said. “We’ve got to have the whole community galvanized to say enough is enough. We have to have safe havens in this city. … I don’t know what more can be done until we all get together.” 

Yet, the Harvard study isn’t the only one to point out that school choice can lead to more safety. As noted in a 2018 article by Corey A. DeAngelis, director of research at the American Federation for Children, four previous studies tied school choice to student safety. The most recent evaluation of the Washington, D.C. voucher program found that private school students were 35% more likely to report that they feel safe in school. 

Another study by the CATO Institute found that 94% of school shootings occur in public schools, as compared to 6% in private schools. And since only 10% of all students attend private schools, the data show private school students are disproportionately less likely to experience school shootings.  

Asked about the rise in violence at public schools, Todd Zylstra, head of Kansas City Christian School – one of the largest and highest-rated private Christian schools in Kansas City – said,We have not seen that at all in our school. We’ve had no problem whatsoever.”  

Zylstra adds that not only was his school not seeing any issue with violence, but it was having one of its best academic years in the last five – while COVID 19 learning loss has been commonplace in other schools across the country. 

“We only went virtual for the fourth quarter of 2020,” he said. “So, we were doing school throughout the pandemic. We didn’t lose any ground.”